Principal Advances Her Inquiry on Drugs, Asks Students' Help

By CHRIS BURRELL

Less than three weeks after she apologized for overstating the problem of marijuana use by students on the regional high school campus, principal Peg Regan has put the pot issue right back on the front burner - at student council, the school committee and her monthly parents meeting.

Mrs. Regan's approach this week was less about gauging the magnitude of the problem and more about formulating the best response from the school.

"Particularly with marijuana, it's not just about disciplinary action," Mrs. Regan told the regional school board Monday night at its regular meeting. "I want to focus on supporting students."

Raising awareness of the problem is the most important step, said the principal, who also stressed that she is seeking ideas for outreach, therapy and prevention.

In October and November, administrators at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School expelled or suspended five students, who were either found on campus in possession of marijuana or determined to be under the influence of the drug. Last month, a sixth student was caught on campus with marijuana and expelled for the remainder of the year.

Mrs. Regan turned to student leaders last week and asked for their help in polling the more than 800 students enrolled at the school to find out their attitudes toward marijuana use and what they think the school should do.

"I wanted to know what the tolerance or intolerance was about marijuana at the high school," she told the Gazette this week in a telephone interview. Marijuana use among Vineyard teenagers is more than twice the national average, according to survey results released almost two years ago. Forty four per cent of Vineyard high school students reported having smoked marijuana in the past 30 days, which is defined as current use.

Last Friday, student council members considered sending out an anonymous, on-line survey to students, but then pushed for an idea they believed would yield more truthful answers - a formal debate on the issue in the auditorium followed by a school-wide survey. That debate has not yet been scheduled.

High school students are also being tapped for help on another front. Lindsay Famariss and Amy Lilavois, two counselors from Island Counseling - a branch of Martha's Vineyard Community Services - have just started an outreach program aimed at empowering Vineyard teenagers. The project, sponsored by the Island's fledgling YMCA group, is modeled after a youth-driven program in the Berkshires town of Great Barrington, which has enabled teens to start businesses and stage their own arts and music events.

The initiatives and latest public discussions come two months after Mrs. Regan brought the issue of marijuana use to the regional high school council, an appointed board made up of teachers, students, parents and community members, asking them for guidance on how to enforce school drug policies on an Island that some believe is lax about pot.

The principal has taken considerable heat for broaching the topic. Last month, some school committee members criticized her for exaggerating the problem. Under pressure from school board members and Vineyard schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash, Mrs. Regan issued an apology for "embarrassing comments" that may have reflected badly on the school.

This week, however, Mrs. Regan abandoned her apologetic stance when she sat down with parents Tuesday morning. She bluntly pointed out that while the campus is supposed to be drug-free, some students were telling her that's hardly the case.

"We weren't finding it, but the kids said ‘It's here. It's here,'" Mrs. Regan told the 16 parents who gathered for the informal coffee meeting at 8 a.m. "Most of the information we get is from the kids. They are alarmed so they alarmed me."

Mr. Cash, who attended the morning session, tried to allay parental concerns. "This is still the safest place on the Island for kids to be during the day," he said.

The campus is set on 80 acres, and the building is 180,000 square feet, the superintendent pointed out.

"Drugs and alcohol on this campus will not occur knowingly," he added. "What I don't know is to what degree is that the case. How much is that perimeter breached?"

While school committee members remained silent on the issue Monday night, the parents were much more vocal Tuesday. Some criticized the high school's health curriculum. "It's not addressing the issues kids have questions about," said one woman. "Kids have said it's irrelevant."

Other parents talked about the pitfalls of their teenage children spending the night at a friend's house. Are they really staying at that house? What are the parental values in that home?

One father shared his remedy for that predicament, saying that he required his teen to call from the friend's house, using a land line telephone, not a cell phone, to check in and then handing the phone to the parents so he could talk to them.

"The things that go on, they say they're safe, but it's not true," said a mother. "It's important for parents to talk to each other, to up the safety in homes and the support for kids."

Talking to other parents, Mrs. Regan conceded, takes a lot of courage. One woman said, "Different families have different standards. Some parents think it's okay for underage kids to drink."

The parents, the principal and the superintendent seemed unified on at least one facet of the problem - the Island factor. Mr. Cash cited the legacy of drug and alcohol use on the Vineyard.

"The school is a focal point," said Mrs. Regan, "but we're really just representative of the whole Island."

She pointed to the prevalence of alcohol in the adult community. "How many events do we have raising money for teen (programs), and we're having an open bar? Doesn't it make perfect sense they would model that," she said.

Discussion touched on the need to understand the root causes of teenage drug use, but no easy answers emerged. The pressure on students not to take a stand against the problem is great. said one parent this week.

"For some kids in school, it feels unsafe to say, ‘I'm not comfortable with drugs in school,'" the woman said.

Other statistics tracking teen behavior on the Island came to light Tuesday when Pam Carelli, the founder of SafeRides of Martha's Vineyard, told parents that the student-run transportation service has seen a huge increase in usage in the first four weekends of operation this year.

"I want to make sure parents are aware how heavily used this program is," said Ms. Carelli.

In eight nights of service, SafeRides dispatchers stationed in Edgartown received 45 calls for rides and ended up providing transportation for 80 teenagers. That's almost half the ridership for all of last year when SafeRides took 97 calls and delivered rides to 181 of their peers.

"I'm seeing a lot of notations about kids being really intoxicated. It's a definite increase, and I'm concerned," Ms. Carelli told the Gazette yesterday in a telephone interview.

As parents and administrators grapple with the issue of risky teenage behavior, the school committee this week voted unanimously to allow the use of a hidden surveillance camera when school is not in session, specifically on nights and weekends.

The school committee had voted to turn off the camera last month after some community and faculty members complained they hadn't known the hallways were under the watch of a video camera and that administrators were using videotapes as evidence to discipline students.

In December, high school administrators and Oak Bluffs police turned to the videotape after threatening graffiti was discovered in the girls' bathroom.

The school council will discuss the use of security cameras at a meeting on Feb. 18. The goal is to draft a policy, but for now, the sole purpose of the camera is to protect the school facility and equipment, Mrs. Regan said.

School committee members remain ambivalent.

"We want the school to be open, laid-back and comfortable, but we need precautions. Better to be safe than sorry," said Robert Tankard, committee member from Tisbury.

Committee chairman Tim Dobel gave his support to turning the camera on when the students leave the building but added, "This is no endorsement of further use of cameras in the school."

"This is a big issue in the community," he said. "A real community standard question."